01/11/2011 07:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Margaret Chase Smith and the Politics of Rhetoric

In the debate over political rhetoric after Tucson, Republican politicians have been charged with toning down their language. Many political observers have greeted that call with skepticism, pointing out that the radical right is the most loyal voting bloc in the party right now. Would any party member call out extremism, knowing that it could ruin their electoral chances?

While the jury is out for today's Republicans, someone did precisely this during the McCarthy Era. Her name was Margaret Chase Smith, and she was a U.S. Senator from the state of Maine.

On June 1, 1950, only four months after Senator Joseph McCarthy made his infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he claimed to have a list of known Communists working for the State Department, Senator Smith stood up in the Senate to make a short speech. She used it to explain a five-point list of principles she called a "Declaration of Conscience."

"I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American," she began.

Referring to Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her, Senator Chase excoriated those in her party who were destroying lives by accusing individuals of Communist leanings. "Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism," she pointed out. Americans have the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs; to protest; and to think for themselves. But attacks that cost people their reputations and jobs were stifling these basic American principles. "Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America," Senator Chase said. "It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others."

Senator Chase wanted a Republican victory in the upcoming elections, she explained, but to replace Truman's Democratic administration -- for which she had plenty of harsh words -- with a Republican regime "that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation."

"I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear."

Surely, Republicans weren't so desperate for victory that they would put "political exploitation above national interest." Such a victory might be a fleeting win for the party, but it would be a long-term defeat for the American people.

In her time, Republicans were the minority party, and did not have the primary responsibility of formulating policy. "But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens," she insisted.

"As an American, I condemn a Republican 'Fascist' just as much as I condemn a Democrat 'Communist,'" she concluded. "They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves."

Six other Republicans Senators concurred in Senator Chase's declaration.

There were two reactions to the declaration within the party. McCarthy sneered at "Snow White and the Six Dwarves." Other Republicans quietly applauded Chase's courage, but refused to show similar courage themselves with public support. In the short term, Senator Chase's voice was largely ignored in the public arena, then when the Korean War broke out, forgotten.

But she was, of course, right. Four years later, the Senate censured McCarthy. And while Senator Chase was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, McCarthy has gone down in history as one of America's worst politicians.

It's worth remembering Senator Chase as we discuss political rhetoric in the wake of Tucson.